The fairy tale tradition dates back to the Bronze Age or before, per researchers and historians. Whether in the oral or the written form, the practice of retelling these ancient stories from many cultures around the world is probably just as longstanding. In post-modern literature, we look up to a few giants who have made this art of retelling entirely their own. Within Western literature, Angela Carter broke new and exciting ground with her feminist subversions of the simple and universal fairy tale archetypes, motifs, and tropes. Anne Sexton gave us her revisionist fairy tale poems. More recently, writers like A S Byatt, Kelly Link, Emma Donoghue, Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Carmen Maria Machado have laid sure-footed claim to this vast terrain. Two major threads connect almost all their works; the first is how the retellings typically do not have happy endings and the second is how they often blur boundaries with other genres by borrowing heavily from speculative/fantasy fiction, myths, legends, and folklore.
The Merry Spinster joins this ongoing, rich lineage. Regular online readers of literary matters will know Ortberg from The Toast, where his witty and sharp takes (as *Mallory) on classic art and literature were always a treat. This collection has evolved from a particular series that ran on the site and involved recasting classic children’s stories as horror stories. Ortberg also currently runs the Dear Prudence column at Slate.
As with some of those earlier web versions, this collection gives us Ortberg’s trademark gender-swapping, flipping of accepted norms of good vs evil even while blurring the line between them, and startling backstories that do not always reveal underlying motivations but definitely add dark, ironic humor. However, the stories here are not like Carter’s overt subversions of male-female power dynamics or Machado’s bold explorations of feminine vulnerability. Instead, we have archetypal characters that are gender-fluid and there are careful but frequent inquiries into where/how genders belong.
Also, where Carter’s retellings could never be read in a single sitting because of their lush and fecund intensity, Ortberg’s pared-down prose, with its dry irony, makes this book one to be consumed as a page-turner. Where Machado’s eerie and unruly women focus on what it means to inhabit a female body, Ortberg’s main characters focus on what, firstly, gender identity even means to them and their world.
For the most part, though, the aim here is, as the book’s subtitle describes, to blend the fantastical into a mostly everyday sort of world and to turn the endings into darker, more horrific ones — either from actual violence or the kind of banality that is worse than violence. The latter is interesting because, while one of the key features of the classic fairy tale tends to be “transformation”, some of these stories end with not much changing after all, as happens so often in real life. In a recent interview, Ortberg describes this sense of everyday horror as follows:
A lot of the book asks: What does it mean to not recognize something that you’re very familiar with? What does it mean to be around something constantly and not know it? What would that make your daily life look like and in what ways would that make your own life essentially unbearable to you?
The sourced fairy tales of Ortberg’s stories are well-known enough: The Little Mermaid; Cinderella; The Six Swans; The Twelve Brothers; The Beauty and the Beast; The Goose-Girl; The Frog Prince; The Fisherman and His Wife. However, Biblical stories, children’s literature, Shakespeare, folklore, and a classic literary short story or two have also been cleverly weaved in, as well. The deceptively simple and timeless prose style of the children’s versions is used to artfully narrate these disturbing and unsettling adult versions. All of this brings a different kind of curious nuance and texture to the storytelling overall.
What is gained by subverting and retelling these age-old stories? And why are fairy tales in particular so popular with revisionists?
First, the charm and allure of the traditional fairy tale continues to be pervasive and persuasive across generations and time because of its four key elements of form. The scholar, Kate Bernheimer, describes the techniques and their main effects in her essay, “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale“. She summarizes it so:
With their flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic, fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and non-realism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction.
Of course, different writers expand and contract the formal template per their preferences and skills, as Bernheimer points out later in the same essay and as all the previously mentioned writers have done. The point is that these techniques of form give readers of fairy tales a distinctive pleasure like no other literary genre.
Second, we also know that, though fairy tales were initially intended for adults, they were sanitized over centuries for children by cutting out violence and sex and adding in lessons about moral virtues. Despite that, no matter how pretty or accomplished Disney makes their princess and mermaid heroines, given their limited ambitions and inevitable sacrifices, they are still far from ideal role models for little girls growing up in today’s complex world. The female protagonist of the classic fairy tale is always working to survive or be rescued from difficult situations simply because the world is not a safe place for her kind. The perennial dichotomy of innocent princess or village girl versus the evil queen or wicked witch is hard to shake off from even modern-day fairy tale narratives. All of these gender stereotypes continue to be a part of our shared cultural myths and influence identities and social interactions.
Both of the above points keep drawing writers of various stripes to revisit, revise, and retell fairy tales with their own subversions, meanings, and insights. By taking on this ongoing and much-celebrated revisionist tradition, such writers hope to engage with and broaden the discussions around key evolving socio-political narratives of their times. Generally, the themes/topics addressed have centered on gender identity/roles, sexuality, power, violence, and resistance.
This is not to suggest that one can miraculously eliminate damaging gender stereotypes and power roles simply by retelling a few old stories. However, as fairy tales are a hugely relevant part of our popular culture, revisionism is one of the more effective and widely-reaching ways to explore alternative approaches to the above-mentioned issues. The best kind of revisionist retelling will, in the end, colonize the original and change forever how readers internalize it and approach the aspects of their lives that it shines a light on.
To be fair, some of Ortberg’s stories do defamiliarize and dismantle some of the usual stereotypes. For example, one of the strongest here is ‘The Thankless Child’, which draws on many literary sources beyond Cinderella to show the subtle ways that gender and power work. Cinderella is named Paul and has the flexibility to choose between being a “wife” or a “husband” after marriage. Another is ‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend, Mr Toad,’ a remix of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the classic Donald Barthelme story, ‘Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby’. It shows the kind of emotional torture that can be harsher than the physical kind. In ‘The Frog Princess’, the princess is traditional in almost every way, except that the use of male pronouns add a deviating essentiality to both the character and the story.
All that said, and taken as a whole, a significant opportunity has been missed by Ortberg in not fully leveraging the universality of these stories to add more richly to the current global #MeToo and diversity discourses. The collection is likely not going to have the same groundbreaking impact as those of the earlier-mentioned writers because it does not take enough risks and does not reach far or deep enough into the current zeitgeist. Yes, this can also be done with writing that leans more toward parody and satire.
Still, the writer’s many longtime fans will not be disappointed. For a second book, it is a commendable work due to its uniquely slanted Ortbergian dark humor. No doubt, given Ortberg’s other writing and personal life journey, there will be more compelling fiction, with a more diverse range of characters, to look forward to.
*Note: Since the writing of this review began, Mallory Ortberg has come out as trans with Daniel Mallory Ortberg as his new name.